A little historical context before we launch into these two ‘longform EP’-length releases from The Gardening Club, I think, because it has been quite the unexpected story. Way way back, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and Phil Collins had some hair, Martin Springett released an album under the banner of The Gardening Club (it was 1983, but Good Lord, that’s nearly four decades now!). Sales-wise, it sank like a stone, being a delicately composed and played album harking back to the pastoral feel of early 1970s Genesis and the like, and was entirely out of step with the times. The Gardening Club was abandoned, and over the following years Martin relocated from England to Canada and continued with his artistic endeavours (remember Ian Hunter’s debut album, with the surrealistic head, or the Coney Hatch debut? Those were his work), but gradually over the years a surprising thing happened: the Gardening Club record began to accumulate something of a cult following, with original copies very much sought after, and glowing reports of the music therein appearing in prog rock circles and, as the internet arrived, online forums. In recent years, the album was reissued on CD, with a large amount of bonus material, and the interest generated led to Martin embarking on a second wave of a career he thought long behind him. Along with his regular musical collaborator, guitarist Norm Macpherson, The Gardening Club became the banner under which these newly-minted Springett Sounds were released, with the albums The Riddle and Boy On A Bike being full of merit.
As we reach the summer of 2021, with hope of things reopening a little after the unforseen twelve months we have all undergone, two new releases from The Potting Shed (as Martin likes to refer to it) have arrived more or less simultaneously, though both with their roots in previous releases. The Time Trilogy was originally a three song collection (as one would expect) released digitally, while The Owl appeared as a four minute song as part of a single alongside a song entitled Strange Kingdom. Both have now been expanded, with The Time Trilogy now being a six-song collection, while The Owl has been developed into a single seventeen-minute epic piece in six sections. Both are markedly different in some ways, though also share much of the same musical foundation, so let’s compare and contrast the two. First up, The Time Trilogy.
Originally digital-only, the delightfully ‘Douglas Adams’ concept of the six-song trilogy has now come out as a physical CD which could be described as either an EP or a mini-album, at just under 25 minutes in length. This is significant, as a large part of any Gardening Club product is the delightfully individual and recognisable artwork by Martin which accompanies each release. In fact, it could easily be argued that time itself has played a cruel trick on Martin’s talents, as back in the lavish gatefold days of vinyl in the ’70s, his vision for a complete music/art package could easily have formed as iconic a brand as the Roger Dean/Yes partnership. Still, such is the largely digital world we live in, and the upside is that it is possible to view and enjoy Martin’s remarkable art at the click of a mouse or touch of a screen, so very much swings alongside roundabouts.
The unusual thing about this release is that Norm Macpherson is absent from it, with Martin this time working alongside Kevin Laliberte and Drew Birston from the band Sultans of String, along with the superb violin contributions of Sari Alesh. Previous Gardening albums have seen the music sometimes take in elements of 10cc-ish art-rock, with nods to albums like The Original Soundtrack or Sheet Music quite noticeable, alongside a clear love of the golden age of the ’70s. This time out, however, we are in markedly more acoustic-based territory, with just enough electric embellishments to colour the music and give it a satisfyingly fleshed-out three-dimensional form. The opening track of the initial ‘trilogy’, Forever Leaving Home, is a fascinatingly slow-burning storytelling piece telling of a sailor, lost at sea and striking a bargain with a mysterious spectral entity, with unwanted consequences. It is very similar in tone to the opening part of the Grateful Dead epic Terrapin Station (the haunting Lady With A Fan), with the unhurried accompaniment and nicely uneasy-sounding tone of the story producing a genuine frisson of intrigue. It’s deceptively simple yet brilliantly done.
The second piece, Sister Of Theft, is shorter and, while still in the acoustic vein, features a very Spanish swirl to the guitars in almost flamenco manner. Up after that, and concluding the trilogy ‘proper’, is Woman In The Waves, which resumes the maritime mystery feel of the opener, telling an enigmatic tale reminiscent of sirens and other legends. Some nice electric guitar courtesy of Martin peppers this piece and makes is a tremendous conclusion to the three-part work. Three expansion tracks have been added for this release, and are all of high quality, with the delicate Finding Home and the percussive, almost tribal feel of Rare Birds a very effective contrast to each other. The disc ends with a piece by Laliberte entitled A Dance To The Music Of Time, after the literary series, and is a beautifully arranged instrumental conclusion to a fine release.
Moving on to The Owl, we are still in markedly acoustic grounded territory, but this time only as a base from which to take off, as Norm Macpherson is back this time with a vengeance, co-composing the music with Martin and, frankly, excelling himself with his guitar work taking the piece to a whole new level. The opening A Voice In The Evening Woods is a very low-key acoustic guitar overture of sorts, with string accompaniment (again by the talented Macpherson) coming in to give it added depth and resonance. The second part, The Boy And The Bird, sees the piece really take flight – if the pun can be forgiven – with Macpherson’s fluid guitar work almost redolent of the likes of Gilmour or Latimer, and his guitar along with Springett’s familiar vocals make this a tremendous piece-within-a-piece. Memory’s Arrow is a heavier section which sees a strident, loping riff, with a sort of Kashmir-esque feel to it in places, accompanying a searing blues-infused slide guitar excursion which somehow fit together perfectly. Those Were The Days is a shorter part, during which we catch our breath and see the lyric developed before The Siren comes in with perhaps the strongest section of all. Certainly Norm saves what is arguably his best work for this, as he contributes some inspired slide guitar to bring the melody to soaring life. The closing A Voice takes us down again to a close.
Currently, The Owl is a digital only standalone release on Bandcamp, but one can only hope that demand will see that change to a physical option, as this is, to my mind, the single finest work yet released under the Gardening Club banner. It is rare these days to find a genuine ‘vinyl side length’ piece in the glorious old-money sense which hangs together as well as this does. There is also some magnificent artwork to accompany it. If I were to choose a format for this excellent pair of releases to appear in, it would be as one single full album release, with The Time Trilogy as the ‘side one’, with The Owl as the ‘closing epic’. That would be as strong a release as almost any you might find this year.
Make sure you get a listen to The Time Trilogy for sure, as it is an excellent work, but whatever you do, beg, borrow or, well, not steal of course, to get hold of The Owl. It’s a genuine high point of 2021’s musical landscape thus far for me. I’ve even foregone the temptation of the many dreadful owl puns to spare you, so give this a go. If you don’t like it I won’t give a hoot – dammit! Missed by this much…